Parshat Tazria: Proximity to Holiness Requires Utmost Caution

Spring is in the air. It is a time of renewal and rebirth after a long, cold winter in which things have lain dormant. According to research done on tens of millions of births, the spring equinox is one of two times of the year in which there is a statistical spike of conceptions resulting in a spate of births in late December or early January (the other spike is in October-November). The ideal conception days seem to be during the kind of weather in which there are pleasant evenings and days that are agreeable and warm. So it is certainly fitting that we read Parshat Tazria, a parshah that begins with birth, in the spring.

Last week’s parshah presented the shocking death of Nadav and Avihu. God consumes the two sons of Aharon as He consumed the burnt offerings given on the eighth day. Rashi explains that the same fire that consumed the burnt offerings and fat parts on the outer alter started in the Holy of Holies to burn the incense and consumed Nadav and Avihu before traveling to the outer altar to consume the offerings.

Many explanations have been given – both critical and non-critical – as to why the two died. It is the midrashic explanation of the Sifra on Shemini that I feel most beautifully explains the story: “That in their joy, since they saw a new fire, came to heap love upon love”.

The Biur elaborates: “Nadav and Avihu were towering personalities; they certainly did not maliciously transgress the word of the Lord. But in their superabundant joy, they lost their judgement and entered the Holy of Holies to burn fine incense although this was not commanded by Moses.”

We Must Follow the Protocol

Nadav and Avihu unfortunately deviated from the strict protocol determined by God that they had been following the previous eight days. The response is harsh and immediate: They become the burnt offerings. Says Ibn Ezra: “They died before the Lord because they thought they were doing something desirable before him.” While their death is tragic, it is not as punitive as other punishments by death because they become sacrifices accepted by God. They die before God, not distanced from Him. What we learn from this story is that intentions alone are not enough. There has to be strict adherence to the protocol of law particularly in the context of the world of sacrifices.

The sons of Aharon may not have understood the consequences of deviating from protocol. But upon their deaths, Aharon and the children of Israel have learned a fundamental lesson: Proximity to holiness requires utmost caution.

To quote Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Leviticus 10:1-3):

There is no room for subjective discretion in any part of the sacrificial service in the Sanctuary. Precise limits and forms are prescribed even for the free-will offerings which must be strictly adhered to. The closeness of and approach of God, which we seek with every offering, may only be found through obedience to and acceptance of God’s will. This is one of the points on which Judaism and paganism are diametrically opposed. The latter uses the offering as a means to achieving the divinity’s aid to fulfill one’s wishes. The Jewish offering means to place the one bringing the offering at God’s service….self-devised sacrifices would destroy the truth which is meant to achieve man’s submission…and would mean the glorification of arbitrary subjectivity.”

The world of sacrifices can quickly become a place of anarchy in which subjective desires and individual spiritual ecstasy can randomly override the institution, usurping any pretense of submission to the demands of one God.

For this reason, perhaps, the Torah takes a break of five chapters before returning (in chapter 16) to the consequences of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, in the parsha called “Aharei Mot”, or “After the Deaths”. In these intervening chapters, the Torah presents a structure of purity and impurity that regulates the ability of men and women to come before God’s presence in the Tabernacle.

Rabbi Chanoch Waxman in his parsha shiur “On Death and Defilement”, published by the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion, explains the reason for these chapters being inserted here:

The common denominator of chapters eleven through fifteen, the laws of purity and impurity, consists not just of the categories of purity and impurity, but also the need to separate between the impure and the holy. Whether in the context of the sanctuary itself, the camp within which it resides or the people within whose camp God resides, holiness demands special care and particular conditions for encountering and preserving it.”

We Must Recognize Our Limitations

I would like to suggest that the strict barriers put up between impurity and holiness mean that humans will invariably throughout their lives be barred from approaching God’s presence in the holiest of places simply because of their physical conditions, regardless of their spiritual aspirations. We will not be able to heap “love upon love” at random when the urge to bring a sacrifice or eat sacrificial food overtakes us. We will have to first acknowledge our human condition, evaluate our state of purity or impurity, before proceeding onward.

I would like to suggest that this process can strengthen our yearning for a connection to the Godliness manifested in the Tabernacle just as the structure of sin and repentance creates a yearning to reconcile with God after one distances oneself spiritually through defiance and sin.

In a previous article, written in honor of Matan’s 25th anniversary, I suggested that rupture and reconciliation as characterized by sin and repentance are an essential part of our relationship with God:

Sin and repentance are the hallmark of our relationship with God….In order to fulfill all of the mitzvot, one has to undergo a rupture in one’s relationship with God in order to be able to undergo reconciliation and reconnection through repentance….Although Adam’s fall has dire consequences, it is also the beginning of a dialogue with God that will continue thereafter. “Where are you?” God asks man. It is a question that resonates with multiple layers of meaning. Where is man in relationship to himself, in relationship to God, in relationship to the world? It is a question that resonates with the meaning given by multiple answers.”

TabernacleHere, too, in the Tabernacle, the nation of Israel in its entirety – man, woman, child, Priest, Levite, Israelite, will spend their lives, until the Second Temple is destroyed, being aware of the limitations presented by their physical, human bodies in the context of ritual purity and impurity. These limitations will, at times, mandate distance from God’s presence which ultimately should create yearning for the states of purity which will allow a re-engagement with the world of sacrifice.

It is thus very appropriate that the whole system is introduced with the birthing woman – clearly presented here out of order. Chapter 12 is confusing: the birthing woman is compared to a menstruating woman (Niddah) – “She shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity” (Leviticus 12:1) before we have actually read about the Niddah in Chapter 15. At this point, we know nothing about menstrual infirmity or about purification of the Niddah. We find out that the birthing woman has a state of “blood purification”, but only after we finish Chapter 15, do we go back and understand how unique that is and how the birthing woman has two periods of purification – the first period like the Niddah (double for birthing a girl) and the second period which is 40 days (or 80 days, again double for a girl). The end of the second period then allows her to return to God’s sanctuary and resume eating sanctified food after bringing a burnt offering and a sin offering.

In Chapter 15 we are presented with four types of bodily generated impurity, all from the sexual organs. First is the Zav, an unnatural discharge that creates a lengthy period of impurity culminating in seven days clean of the discharge, immersion in a mikva and the bringing of sin and burnt offerings, followed by the man with a seminal emission who is impure until nightfall and merely requires immersion in the mikva along with the woman who has also come into contact with his seed. The chapter continues with the Niddah who is impure for seven days total and presumably immerses like the man and woman in the previous chapter and it ends with the Zavah who, like the Zav, exhibits an unnatural form of uterine bleeding requiring seven days clean of the discharge, immersion and sacrifices as stated above.

In the A-B-B-A structure: Zav, Zera, Niddah, Zavah, we see that the natural physical states of seminal emission and menstruation – both of which are necessary to create life – create minimal states of impurity and are bracketed by the Zav and Zavah – neither of which contribute to conception – represent more stringent states of impurity.

Many have wondered at the need for the birthing woman to bring a sin offering, but if we read Chapters 12-15 carefully, we can wonder, as well, why the Metzora, Zav or Zavah bring sin offerings. In none of these verses do we detect the fury of God for incurring impurity in comparison to the sins of Chapters 18-20, in which God rails against abomination and warns that the land will vomit out those engaging in sinful practices. Rather, impurity results from the physical body, which experiences discharges and emissions that creates a state of impurity. It is important to note that one person can be hygienically clean but impure while another person can be filthy, even with suppurating wounds, and remain in a state of purity. There is no shame in being impure. It is a consequence of our human condition, a condition desired by God in His creation of man.

Baruch Levine, in his commentary to the JPS Torah Commentary on Vayikra, clarifies:

Ancient man seldom distinguished between sin and impurity. In man’s relation to God all sinfulness produced [spiritual] impurity. All impurity, however contracted, could lead to sinfulness if not attended to, and failure to deal properly with impurity aroused God’s anger [coming to the Temple in a state of impurity, for instance]. The point is that the requirement to present a sin offering does not necessarily presume any offense on the part of the person so obligated. This offering was often needed to remove impurity. Childbirth for example, was not sinful – it involved no violation of law – yet a sin offering was required.”

I will further develop this idea by suggesting that the Torah places the birthing woman as the first example of impurity deliberately out of order in order to preempt negative association with the state of impurity. After all, birth is one of the most desirable and elevated experiences of the human condition. If we advance the midrashic idea that man, woman and God all participate in conception of a child, than it is the only way in which Godliness can be perpetuated – through the birth of humans who are created in the image of God. In other words, at the moment when a couple most feels the presence of Godliness in their lives, especially if both mother and child survive, the woman, though blameless, becomes Niddah followed by a unique period of impurity. Although she may want to bring thanksgiving offerings, she must wait until the period of impurity ends, acknowledge the “rupture” by bringing a sin offering and only afterwards, can she choose to bring thanksgiving offerings and celebrate “with God” at her discretion.

While the world of sacrifices is no longer in existence, I would like to suggest that there is a greater underlying message. At times of spiritual exploration or growth, we might ignore the physical manifestations of our human condition. Judaism fully endorses integrating the physical and the spiritual in our total relationship with God. The Torah, in its presentation of the laws of purity and impurity which solely involve our physical bodies, forces us to recognize that in addition to the soul, the body is an active participant in our relationship with God, both in distancing us, but more significantly, in ultimately allowing us to also reconnect.

Rabbanit Nechama Goldman-BarashRabbanit Nechama Goldman-Barash, a member of Beit Hillel, is the Rachelle Isserow Scholar in the five year Hilchata program at Matan. A graduate of the Advanced Talmud Institute at Matan (a three year intensive program for Talmud study), she teaches rabbinic text and contemporary halacha at Pardes, Matan and various post-high school gap year programs. Nechama is a Yoetzet Halacha and also teaches couples before marriage about the relevant laws and practices and gives community classes on Judaism and sexuality.

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